Ascension : Why does Ascension need a new Constitution?
Submitted by The Islander (Ascension Island Government) 27.11.2008 (Article Archived on 11.12.2008)
It was good to return to Ascension in November following my visit in August.
It was good to return to Ascension in November following my visit in August. Elections had of course taken place in the meantime and I was very pleased to meet the new Councillors. I am looking forward to working with them over the course of their time in office.
The primary purpose of my visit this time was to further discussions on a new Constitution. I was therefore accompanied by two lawyer colleagues who I had travelled with first to St Helena. Some may have read or heard about that part of our visit from the St Helena press.
Over the course of our visit, the question of why a new Constitution was needed regularly came up. If the current Constitution ain’t broke, why fix it? My answer is that the 1988 Constitution of St Helena is broke and does need fixing so that it suits the needs of Ascension (and St Helena and Tristan) today and for the years ahead. For example:
- there is no bill of rights in the current Constitution. Putting rights into a Constitution would mean that you would be able to see clearly what your rights were, and they would be ones specifically tailored to Ascension and would be broader than European Convention on Human Rights ones. Perhaps more importantly, individuals would be able to take complaints to the local courts if they felt their rights had been breached. They would not have to rely on a court located in France to enforce their rights. And Ordinances would have to be in line with the rights in the Constitution – rights couldn’t be weakened or removed by local law;
- Ascension is currently described as a “Dependency” of St Helena. This is an outdated and inaccurate description. In a new Constitution, it would be named in its own right as part of a territorial grouping with St Helena and Tristan. There would be a Governor of Ascension, the role of the Administrator would be recognised, and – for the first time – the Island Council would be established in the highest law in the land with an obligation on the Governor to consult it in the making of laws;
- to further help establish the relationship between the islands and the UK, a proposed innovation would be to establish “Partnership Values” which do not currently appear in any Overseas Territory Constitution. These would set out the nature of the relationship between Ascension and the UK, and between Ascension and St Helena and Tristan. This is important as it would set the tone for the whole document and set principles we would all have to live up to;
- a new Constitution would also provide for the independence of the judiciary, taking away the possibility of the Governor dismissing judges without reference to an independent body. And the independence of the public service would also be set out, taking away the possibility of political interference in eg hiring and firing;
- and silence on financial issues would be replaced by a set of new provisions which would ensure strong accountability with independent audit assured.
In my view a new Constitution would be a significant step forward. No doubt more change will be needed in the future. But that’s possible. Constitutions aren’t set in stone for ever. But I do not think the current Constitution is serving people well.
So what next? Following discussions with Councillors, with interested groups, with members of the public, we are now going to work changes/proposals into the draft that we published in June. Amongst other changes requested in consultations, we will be separating the document more clearly out into three parts for the three islands. This should mean that it is much clearer what applies to Ascension, as it will for Tristan. We hope to publish this document in December and make it available for some three months for consultation. I know that Councillors will be keen to hear peoples’ views during this period and we will then be looking to them for guidance as to how they, as elected representatives, would like to proceed.
Constitutions may sound dull, perhaps things for lawyers only. But I hope you will agree that the principles I have talked about above are ones that are really important for everyone as they impact on the way everyone in a Territory lives.
Head of Southern Oceans Team
Foreign and Commonwealth Office